Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I despise memorizing lines. If one did not have to memorize lines, being a professional actor would be the best job in the world (with the possible exception of Postmaster General).

I've tried everything to cut corners, to find a softer, easier way to do it. I've tried writing them. I've tried taping them and listening to them while I sleep. I've even tried sleeping with the script under my pillow (osmosis, you know). None of that works for me. The only thing that works, after years of experimenting with daring new approaches, is pacing and saying them over and over and over and over until I hate them.

I'm at the point now that I hate them.

At the risk of cliche, it's getting harder as I get older. Some years back I did a national tour of a play called 'Give 'em Hell Harry.' It's a one-person show about Harry Truman. I traveled with a make-up guru, a stage manager, a lighting guy and a tour manager. Like all national tours, after the first month or so, I usually had no idea where I was half the time.

The play was two and half hours of me as Harry Truman. Fortunately, I had about six months to learn that one. And I learned something about myself, too. I learned that I have exactly five hours of memorization in me. After that, say, at five hours and one minute, my mind shuts down. I can't stuff, push or squeeze one more sentence into my brain. These days it's probably more like three hours.

Olivier was legendary for coming into rehearsals with the script memorized. Geoffrey Marshall, a fine British stage actor who worked with Olivier on his famous Othello at The National in the mid-sixties, recalls Sir Larry acting the role full-out without opening the book at the first read-thru of that play in London. Admirable. Especially considering Olivier at never assayed this particular role before.

On the other had, Brando probably stopped memorizing lines around 1970. Of course that's film, a different animal altogether, but Brando claimed knowing the line beforehand destroyed the actor's 'spontaneous instinct.' So Brando would write his lines all over the set, sometimes even on the actor he was playing opposite. Probably best not discount the possibility that Brando was just lazy, too.

In his book, 'Songs My Mother Taught Me,' he writes about the thousands of actors that have lamented his not going back to the stage and doing 'the classics,' the Brandophiles that claim he was the best actor of the century and he sold out by not fulfilling his destiny on the stage. He says he knew his limitions as an actor even though others did not. He says, "I did not have the vocal equipment or the mental discipline to become a great stage actor." He may have been right. He is our great American film actor of the twentieth century. I think he knew that film was his medium. Frankly, I don't blame him for not going back to the stage.

But back to this memorizing lines business.

Whenever I've done the 'big' roles, the ones that require heavy and substantial memorization, I always have a moment of panic the instant before I step onstage. "You don't know the whole play," my brain tells me. Of course, I do, but I don't have it on a computer screen right in front of me. One says the first line, stays in the moment, and before one knows it, one is saying the last line. That's the long and short of it. Now, of course, it's an enormously complicated thing to describe to non-actors, but actors understand exactly what I mean. The trick is to not allow yourself to get one second behind or one second ahead. This is what the often misunderstood Uta Hagen always wrote about. 'Staying in the moment.'

In one of those 'Actors on Acting' books out there Kevin Kline is the focus of one of the segments. He recalls working on his first film, 'Sophie's Choice,' and Meryl Streep asking him privately if he'd memorized the entire script. Kline said, somewhat surprised, "of course." She said, and I'm quoting from the book, "Kevin, you don't have to do that in film. Just get the 'idea' of what the script says." Hm. That's from Meryl Streep, one of the finest actors alive today. But, as I said, film is the apple to the stage's orange.

So today it's back to the drawing board, memorizing lines. Angie helps me as much as possible, but it's such a mind-numbing experience I hesitate to ask her to help too much although she doesn't seem to mind.

Last night's rehearsal held some pleasant surprises. I was very encouraged. Although at one point I had some serious music issues (my own), the early part of the rehearsal went a long ways to set my mind at ease.

It's going to get tricky from here on out because it's soon going to be all about the tech. The actors are going to be let loose to fly on their own. The 10 out of 12s are soon to start, the lighting and sound and design people are about to take over. For better or worse, the inmates have now been given the keys.

See you tomorrow.